This week for Book Club, we're looking at histories of Western philosophy that underpin how humans think about our ancestors and other possible societal arrangements. Where do our guiding assumptions come from?

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Well, folks, we’re diving into The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. If you missed our book club opener last Friday, you can always double back to see why we’re thinking about this 2021 work of imaginative anthropology, which explores the history of how we created our ideas of early human history. Got your books at the ready? Not to worry, if not: today we’ll review the core arguments of the first two chapters, with questions we can all chew over whether we’ve read the book or not.

As noted last week, lofty title aside, this book is a potent site for humanist conversation because it invites us to engage our history with more curiosity. Far from setting down definitive answers to every question about our early species, its priority is reminding us of the existence of more possibilities than current stories around the data often allow. As “the Davids” write:

We are projects of collective self-creation. What if we approached human history that way? What if we treat people, from the beginning, as imaginative, intelligent, playful creatures who deserve to be understood as such? What if, instead of telling a story about how our species fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?

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Social theory is largely a game of make-believe in which we pretend, just for the sake of argument, that there’s just one thing going on: essentially, we reduce everything to a cartoon so as to be able to detect patterns that would be otherwise invisible. As a result, all real progress in social science has been rooted in the courage to say things that are, in the final analysis, slightly ridiculous: the work of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud or Claude Lévi-Strauss being only particularly salient cases in point. One must simplify the world to discover something new about it. The problem comes when, long after the discovery has been made, people continue to simplify.

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This argument carries through the chapters we’ll discuss today, but it’s important to remember from the outset that we’re not dealing with a text making absolutist claims, so much as asking us to rethink the absolutist gloss that’s often spread over human history. I suspect readers will find plenty to quibble with on a sentence level and with specific examples, but if we’re to meet this text on its level, we need to remember that adding more nuance and complexity to the story of humanity is kind of the whole point. Wherever you see fit to contribute to that exercise: have at it!

The Dawn of Everything: Chapters 1 & 2

Key terms: Gilbert Chinard • civilization • Pierre Clastres • democracy • Ter Ellingson • equality • Freemasons • inequality • hierarchy • Thomas Hobbes • human rights • the indigenous critique • the Jesuits • Kandiaronk • Baron de Lahontan • the Mi’kmaq • the noble savage • Jean-Jacques Rousseau • Steven Pinker • property • schismogenesis • state of innocence • A. R. J. Turgot • the Wendat • wicked liberty • the Yanomami

The Trolley Problem in political philosophy

Though the Davids never explicitly reference the Trolley Problem, the classic thought experiment in which someone is asked to choose a track for a train that’s going to hit someone either way, the quandary came to mind while re-reading Chapter 1: Farewell to Humanity’s Childhood. Initially, the Davids had planned to write a book that followed two “tracks” of philosophical discourse around the origins of inequality: the one set by Thomas Hobbes, who viewed human life before civilization as “nasty, brutish, and short”; and the one set by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who placed humanity in a state of childlike innocence until a version of “the Fall” via the Agricultural Revolution, and the modern concept of property.

But at some point in their preliminary research, the Davids hit pause, and asked themselves why these two tracks existed in the first place. What had suddenly made the question of inequality worth the pursuit of an explanation in the 17th and 18th centuries? Especially when, at the time, there was no great love for concepts like democracy, and hierarchy abounded in every walk of European life? Yes, everyone was more or less “equal” under the divine, and also under the royalty given license to rule as an extension of the divine. But beyond that, what possible alternative social order existed, to prompt people to wonder why their civilization was the way it was?

Chapter 2 explores the deeper conversation around Hobbes, Rousseau, and other writers of their respective eras. But first, the introduction establishes three reasons that the Davids decided it was time to take the train off these two tracks entirely. As they argue, it’s important to remember that the whole question exists in a distinct material context because a) the history of humanity it relies upon isn’t accurate, b) the framing of debate around this question has huge implications for policy discourse, and c) it “makes the past needlessly dull”. What they want is for us to remember that, far from being an obvious and ideologically neutral query, the question of inequality has a history the same as another other.

When it comes to a), the Davids take pains to note that even the historical authors in question were explicit about the nature of their hypothetical writing exercises. Nevertheless, many have since taken their thought experiences credulously, as 1:1 reflections of the actual course of human history. That’s a problem, and it’s one that the Davids especially note in contemporary work like that of Steven Pinker, who leans strongly on Hobbes’ track to argue that even tribes like the Yanomami today illustrate how much more nasty and brutish the rest of humanity would have been if not for the rise of Western civilization.

This relates to b), the implications for policy today, because this grand binary opposition between Hobbes and Rousseau has informed whole centuries of philosophical argument, turning it down one of two tracks when it might just as easily have gone down others.

The ideological problem, the Davids argue, is that Hobbes and Rousseau differ only superficially in the implications of their competing histories. One argues that we started out barbaric and civilization has controlled our worst impulses. The other argues that it was the advent of larger civilization, through the ramping up of centralized industry, that exacerbated pre-existing differences and brought us to our current state of inequality.

In the process, though, both are at work in a larger project of justifying the Western status quo, as an inevitable state of being that can only ever be tinkered with, rather than more significantly reformed. And that underlying conclusion, taken for granted whenever we’re caught up in figuring out whether Hobbes or Rousseau was “right”, is by no means neutral territory: nor did it ever need to be taken as a given, especially since (as we’ll see) the whole notion of “equality” is a later addition to a discourse originally about freedom.

So how did that project come about?

Why did these writers feel the need to defend Western inequality in the first place?

Materialist histories of philosophical discourse

In Chapter 2: Wicked Liberty, the Davids reference a term that could probably have been brought forward sooner: “schismogenesis”, the formation of an idea in oppositional relation to the existence of another. Western atheists by and large are pros at schismogenesis: in our circles, whole cultural identities exist solely around negation of the core assertion by theists that there is a god. How does one come to need a word like “secular”, even, without the space it carves out for us in a world dominated by religious spheres of influence?

Despite our familiarity with the concept, though, stories of Western history have a deep aversion to imagining that Western ideas and innovations could possibly have emerged in dialogue with other cultures. How can one argue for the supremacy of one’s civilization, if its core texts and traditions emerged in organic conversation with those around it?

Nevertheless, as the Davids argue, more recent Western culture grew largely from European exposure to new communities in the Americas: people who had never heard of their Christ, who had none of their religion, and who lived in lands of significant resource abundance and colonial possibility. Before exploration, there was a baseline equality granted to those presumed to be equal under Christ, but what were colonizers to make of these people baffled by their entire conceptualization of such a god? Early Spanish mandates emphasized that it was the colonizer’s responsibility to educate heathens into being Christians who would one day then be worthy of (limited) self-rule. But these heathens by and large didn’t want to be converted.

Worse still: their reasons, as shared with average Europeans via accounts recorded in part by the Jesuits, in their dealings with the Wendat and the Mi’kmak, was that Amerindians weren’t at all impressed by Western civilization. Eloquent speakers as many of them were, due to the importance of compelling argument in their day-to-day dealings, Amerindians ran circles around many European missionaries overconfident in the self-evident superiority of their material wealth and Christian cultures. Indigenous respondents pointed to the existence of poverty, and the rituals of slave-like obedience and self-denial necessary to survive at all in Western society, as signs of Western inferiority to the Indigenous way of life.

In turn, Amerindians were accused of “wicked liberty” by the Jesuits, because the freedom they venerated involved breaking gender and sexual mores critical to Western religio-political practice, and otherwise gave Christianity little “in” with its preconceived notions of obvious deference to a singular authority. Surely the Amerindian way of life was pure chaos, the Jesuits believed, if no one could reliably force another person to do as they were commanded, and if even the most compelling tongues in Amerindian circles could be laughed at and ignored by those who wished to go their own way?

But back home, Indigenous observations about Western life hit a nerve. Widely read and copied, the figure of the outsider looking in became a common archetype for writers critiquing European society themselves. And as the Davids note, it was indeed this New World freedom that bothered Europeans more. The question of equality or inequality certainly followed as a manifestation of that freedom, but it was secondary to the abject horror, among many, at a system in which rigid hierarchies of codified authority held far less sway. When Amerindians who visited Europe chose to go home after, and when settlers also found they preferred the Amerindian way of life to the trappings of formal European society, this presented a serious challenge to the “self-evident” superiority of the West.

Schismogenesis can lead to hyperbole, though, as it did in Baron de Lahontan’s embellished writings about his conversations with the eminent Amerindian leader Kandiaronk. In arguing against Lahontan, the version of Kandiaronk on these pages often makes grand claims to the extreme opposite of European culture: claims that didn’t always accord with the far messier, more nuanced truth of Indigenous societies. There were rules in Amerindian cultures. And procedures followed when rules were broken. And leaders, too.

But overall, there was something akin to anarchism in such societies that filtered back to Europe in the form of a question, and a challenge, to notions of “authority, decency, social responsibility and, above all, freedom”. Conversely, too, Europe puzzled the Amerindians: how could “a mere unequal distribution of material goods [turn] into the ability to tell others what to do, to employ them as servants, workmen or grenadiers, or simply to feel that it was no concern of theirs if they were left dying in a feverish bundle on the street?”

Rousseau rose to fame as a literary composer when he won an essay contest in 1750 by the Académie de Dijon, which asked “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts contributed to moral improvement”, and which selected his answer (in the negative) as its champion. From that popularity he gained much more time in the press, answering rebuttals to his piece, until the Academy raised its next contest topic, on the origins of social inequality.

This time, Rousseau didn’t win (his treatise went over the word limit), but this essay, “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men”, became wildly successful in broader discourse. The Davids argue that it succeeded because

it’s really a kind of clever compromise between two or perhaps even three contradictory positions on the most urgent social and moral concerns of eighteenth-century Europe. It manages to incorporate elements of the indigenous critique, echoes of the biblical narrative of the Fall, and something that at least looks a great deal like the evolutionary stages of material development that were only just being propounded, around that time, by Turgot and Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Rousseau agrees, in essence, with Kandiaronk’s view that civilized Europeans were, by and large, atrocious creatures, for all the reasons that the Wendat had outlined; and he agrees property is the root of the problem. The one—major—difference between them is that Rousseau, unlike Kandiaronk, cannot really envisage society being based on anything else.

And this idea had legs. Prior to it, the economist A.R.J. Turgot had tried to dissuade writers from taking up the Indigenous critique without putting it in its place. To him, the Amerindian form of freedom, untethered from property and rapid technological advancement, was a sign of inferiority, not superiority. After the French Revolution, conservative critics blamed Rousseau for what had transpired, in keeping with Turgot’s vision of a totalitarian nightmare enforced by revolutionary violence.

Nevertheless, both the American and French Revolutions upheld ideas of a return to liberty plainly informed by the text, as did the ethos of the Freemason society known as the Illuminati. Ironically, Rousseau’s ideas are now viewed as classically conservative (i.e., the idea of the “Fall” into moral decay through progress), but at the time they seemed to foment the creation of a whole new leftist discourse: the greatest of conservative betrayals.

The Davids here take time to remind us that plenty of terms we now read in certain political contexts changed allegiance on the spectrum over the years. The “myth of the noble savage” is now a politically left critique, but in the mid-19th century it was a scornful term used by pro-British Empire racists against the archetype of the Amerindian outsider ever proving superior to Western thinkers with his critiques of Western society. The term flattened the very nuanced existing portraits of both the good and bad in Amerindian societies, to make left-leaning advocates of any Amerindian position seem naive.

Gilbert Chinard went one further in 1913, when he not only blamed Rousseau but also Lahontan, and Lahontan’s ideological enemy in the Jesuits, for having brought this plague of Amerindian anarchist thinking into Western society. According to anthropologist Ter Ellingson, Chinard claimed that the Jesuits did not have innocent motives when reporting on these “dangerous ideas”, which clearly did not serve the interests of monarchical state and religion. Amerindians were so different a race, in Ellingson’s reading of Chinard, that one might as well have recorded the opinions of a leprechaun: and it came down to the insidious motives of a few white people, that Westerners took them seriously at all.

The Davids conclude by highlighting the danger in the binary: of either unduly venerating or dismissing a whole other body of cultural discourse. Their critique of Rousseau lies with how he used Indigenous peoples as a mere placeholder, and how, in the process, “he strips his ‘savages’ of any imaginative powers of their own; their happiness is entirely derived from their inability to imagine things otherwise”. In the 1960s, anthropologist Pierre Clastres offered an imaginative counterpoint: what if people we configure as “simple” and “innocent” didn’t live as they did out of a lack of choice, but because they consciously chose to avoid domination and power in certain forms? Even Rousseau hadn’t fully depicted “savages” as ignorant, after all; his essay imagines them avoiding others because some part of them tacitly recognized the risk of violence in shared company.

There are limits to Clastres’ argument, the Davids note, but so too are there limits on the simplistic terms set as a gloss over this whole intricate period of European dialogue around the anxieties posed by its colonial endeavors. The idea of Mi’kmak and Wendat cultures being seen as “egalitarian” is a Western imposition that says more about its own cultural preoccupations than about the idea of equality itself.

In fact, it remains entirely unclear what ‘egalitarian’ even means. Ultimately the idea is employed not because it has any real analytical substance, but rather for the same reason seventeenth-century natural law theorists speculated about equality in the State of Nature: ‘equality’ is a default term, referring to that kind of protoplasmic mass of humanity one imagines as being left over when all the trappings of civilization are stripped away. ‘Egalitarian’ people are those without princes, judges, overseers or hereditary priests, and usually without cities or writing, or preferably even farming. They are societies of equals only in the sense that all the most obvious tokens of inequality are missing.

For the Davids, this state of affairs amounts to a failure of the imagination, both when it comes to the rich lives of ancient humans and to our societal possibilities today. Even the older histories of “democracy” and “equality” that the West does entertain, such as in Athenian and Spartan societies, are impoverished, flattened versions of what might be a much fuller playing field of possibilities, if we re-engaged with existing evidence with a more open mindset than our fealty to the old “Great Man” stories of political science allow.

And that’s where we leave off, before Chapters 3 & 4 take us back to so-called “prehistory”, where history yet remains to be reviewed. Happy reading, if you do.

Key questions

  • When the history of Western philosophy is first taught, it’s rarely presented in the sort of materialist critique we see here. Rather, we’re told in a more disembodied way that “Hobbes argued this” and “Rousseau argued that”. But what if we taught the material conditions in which these ideas actually arose? Would we be able to dispel, at the outset of students’ introductions to history and philosophy, the idea that any philosophical question ever comes to us out of the ether? Or that any venerated thinker comes to their ideas outside of a much more intricate social discourse?
  • The idea of equality is presented in these chapters as a gloss retroactively placed on a conversation that was initially more about the nature of freedom. Now both terms struggle to sustain meaning in our discourse. The freedom to do what? Equality in what realm, and in relation to what implicit alternative? If we were to impose a material reality on both those terms, and related concepts like property and democracy, what would we learn about the central preoccupations of our world today? What are we really struggling over, politically and philosophically, when we invoke those terms in relation to contemporary news and discourse? And what possibilities are we missing?
  • The idea of crafting identity in contrast to another ideological position is a familiar one, especially to secular/atheist folks. But is there a point at which schismogenesis fails to serve us well? Are we trapped arguing around two tracks in the Trolley Problem, when we could be pursuing a much more open landscape of social possibilities instead?
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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.